After all those weekends of having to pretend to be excited about doing stuff with friends and family, Super Rugby is finally back and we can gorge ourselves on round after round of great rugby… and the Sunwolves.
I joke of course – well kinda, but more of that later.
While it might be too early to start identifying genuine form or momentum, there were certainly a lot of topics to talk about from the first seven matches. So let’s dig in with just a few of them!
Sonny Bill’s goatee isn’t the only worrying thing about the Blues
This is going to be a very interesting season for the Blues. In so many ways they look like they could be in real trouble – a playing squad where there is youth and world class talent, but the youth are not world class talent, and the world class talent is not youthful.
Of course that’s not strictly true, but it is true that new coach Leon MacDonald is dealing with some interesting challenges in his squad.
However despite these challenges, the worrying thing for many Blues fans is that their team might be able to cause some real upsets this season and as a result give their fans some real hope of finals rugby.
Against the Crusaders they ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard, but their performance was good and they definitely got some very harsh decisions at key points that made their attempts to steal a great win even harder.
On their day, the Blues centres and wings should strike real fear into the heart of any opponent. Sonny Bill Williams, Ma’a Nonu and Rieko Ioane could make an awesome trio but if the likes of Harry Plummer can’t unleash them and kick better than this weekend, then it’ll all be for nothing.
So for the Blues there are two big questions – can one of their inexperienced fly halves step up and deliver an excellent season, and can someone please find Sonny Bill a razor?
Highlanders show great fight
The men from the deep south of New Zealand showed some impressive fight back skills against the Chiefs on Friday and showed that perhaps this year they could challenge for the top spot in the NZ conference.
Even though they were behind on the scoreboard from the 20th minute and had to play with 14 men for the final 10 minutes, they still found a way to win away from home. That’s got to be a good sign for Ben Smith and his team.
Of course don’t discount the Chiefs so early in the season. They started four debutantes and didn’t have first choice talent such as Damian McKenzie playing either.
Add to that the fact that Anton Lienert-Brown played well and hooker Nathan Harris had some sensational touches in the loose, and the Chiefs will be a real threat again this year.
Rebels back line delivers on the hype…
There was plenty of hype about the three quarters from Melbourne ahead of this year’s competition and on Saturday they started to show that the hype is well placed.
Having individuals with talent is one thing but would they be able to play together and be a real threat in both defence and attack.
Well the encouraging news for Rebels fans was that against the Brumbies the backs impressed and more importantly two key combinations looked like they could great something memorable.
The reunited Will Genia and Quade Cooper bring experience to the team for sure and they looked like they were very happy to be back together.
Also of interest was how Cooper and Billy Meakes combined – they looked good as joint play makers at No.10 and No.12 and linked up well.
But their forwards need to be stronger
However the pre season concerns about the lack of power in the Rebel’s forwards haven’t gone away and with the Brumbies scoring 4 tries through their pack those concerns will only be louder this week.
The Rebels will need to find a way to ensure that their pack makes up for some of their missing quality but being ruthlessly efficient and well drilled.
They don’t need to be jam packed with internationals to cause other sides problems but they do have to make the very most of what they’ve got.
Quade bound for the Wallabies – well, probably not, but maybe…
Quade Cooper – the forgotten son of Australian rugby – has been brought back from the shadows.
Not to be confused with Karmichael Hunt who has also been brought back but is more like the forgotten cousin of Australian rugby.
Quade has always been known for his incredible skill but on Saturday he showed a new level of maturity and defensive ability that would have excited Rebel’s fans and maybe even turned the head of Cheika and Scott Johnson.
He wasn’t faultless by any means and when I say that he’s improved his defence, that doesn’t mean he’s a wall but he wasn’t being hidden as he has in the past.
If he can put in some high-quality performances in the opening rounds then he could arguably jump ahead of other fly halves in the Wallabies equation – including Mr Foley who didn’t help his reputation at the death in Sydney.
Of course it’s a long shot but let’s face it – the Australian international side hasn’t exactly been full of high-quality No.10s anytime recently has it, and when you’re past 12 months saw you win just four matches out of 13 you do really have to explore all options.
If you’re first choice scrum half is playing well with a former first choice fly half at Super Rugby level then surely you’d start to wonder wouldn’t you?
Does World Rugby need to look at the head high red cards?
In the opening game of the season Sio Tomkinson was given a straight red card having only just come onto the field for a head high, shoulder hit on Brodie Retallick.
Now by the letter of the law it’s hard to argue with the red – Tomkinson didn’t wrap his arms, he led with the shoulder and he made contact with the Easter Island statue that is Retallick’s head.
However the incident has raised some questions about whether those laws are in good order. Replays show that Retallick was ducking into the tackle and that part of the reason he got cracked in the head was because he lowered his head down to Tomkinson’s shoulder height.
Now of course no one is saying that it was Retallick’s fault and that he deserved the hit. Not at all.
But is it fair to red card the tackler when he wasn’t 100 per cent responsible for the hit making contact with the ball runner’s head?
A similar incident happened in the English Premiership earlier this season where Danny Cipriani was red carded for a head high shoulder hit.
On this occasion replays showed that Cippers was actually backing away from the tackle at the point of contact and again the ball runner was ducking into that contact.
Is there a case to be made where in these incidents, a yellow card is more appropriate?
Brumbies fans need to be worried
If you score four tries in your opening game then surely fans should have plenty to be excited about?
Well in the case of the Brumbies, sadly not.
Yes, they scored four tries but it was all through the forwards and against one of the weaker packs of the Australian conference – the Rebels.
However, despite being at home and scoring four tries they still lost and they really didn’t look great especially in defence and when the backs tried to attack.
2018 was a tough year for Brumbies fans made all the harder when they got close to somehow qualifying for the finals after some terrible performances during the season.
Ahead of this season many have been saying that they could challenge for the Australian Conference and a decent finals run.
However they were saying that in February 2018 as well and based on this opening game, it could be an even tougher season this year where there’s not even the gimmer of finals footy.
They have the individual talent in the squad for sure but they have to get over this surprising loss and fix things quickly.
Speaking of tough times – the Tahs continue to frustrate
The Tahs’ loss to the Hurricanes will have hurt. While the Canes weren’t at full strength, the Tahs played well for much of the game.
They took advantage of opportunities when they cropped up, they looked good with ball in hand, they didn’t throw away easy three pointers in the chase for line out glory and for periods in the second half they with stood wave after wave of Canes pressure.
They even had a chance to win the game with just 60 seconds to go when Bernard Foley had a straightforward penalty kick which he ended up pulling to the left.
Of course it’s only Round 1 and there’s lots more rugby to be played over the coming months, but if the Tahs can’t close out these sorts of games where victory is there for the taking then it could be a very frustrating season.
It was interesting to note that their pack gave up a few important penalties in the scrum – they will want to make sure that doesn’t become a habit as it will leak points and release pressure if it continues.
The good news for the men in blue is that Israel Folau looked in exciting form.
Having signed a juicy contract with Rugby Australia just recently, his future is settled and NSW fans will hope that a settled Izzy is a prolific Izzy – well at least when it comes to rugby, maybe not so much with the social media.
The Bulls look like real superheroes
Over in South Africa, the franchises have taken to wearing Avenger style kits and the Bulls really played like they were 15 Captain Americas.
In beating Conference rivals, the Stormers, 40-3 the Bulls made an impressive statement.
If they continue to play with that same sort of intensity and clinical finishing then they are going to be a real threat this season.
Players from all over the team put in man of the match performances and with power in the pack and pace in the backs the Bulls could be onto something this year as Pote Human takes over from John Mitchell.
The real challenge of course will be when they go on the road – if they can bring these same levels of power to their road trips then look out for some fireworks.